The Cult Movie Club: Great Swear Scenes Of The 1980s

We all know good movie swearing when we hear it.

From Richard E Grant’s gloriously-English ‘Monty, you terrible c*nt!’ (‘Withnail & I’) to Harvey Keitel’s epochal ‘You rat-f*ck!’ (‘Bad Lieutenant’), modern cinema was made for despicable language.

Your mum told you that cursing was a sure sign of a limited vocabulary, but try telling that to writer/directors David Mamet, John Hughes, Bruce Robinson and Oliver Stone, who consistently broke out the memorable humdingers.

To celebrate the cinematic four-letter word, we proudly present some of the best swear scenes of the 1980s, in no particular order. A few rules: no cartoons, because…I hate them. And it has to be dialogue, not a stand-up routine or monologue. And yes, a few of these movies were released in 1990 but surely shot in ’89 (and I need them in the list…).

WARNING: this piece is rated X, not suitable for minors or those easily offended…

7. ‘Casualties Of War’ (1989)

We start with the only ‘serious’ item in the list, a well-placed profanity during one of the more poetic dialogue scenes in this underrated David Rabe-penned, Brian De Palma-directed drama.

6. ‘Planes, Trains And Automobiles’ (1987)

Steve Martin’s ’70s stand-up act wasn’t particularly known for the four-letter tirades, but he had his moments (including the memorable skit on The Steve Martin Brothers album that begins: ‘Well, good evening, motherf*ckers…’). But this endlessly-watchable John Hughes-penned blowout had even Steve’s hardcore fans hiding behind the sofa. The scene is also notable for featuring the brilliant Edie McLurg.

5. ‘Scarface’ (1983)

De Palma’s drama is surely the doyenne of swear movies, so we won’t pick out a single Oliver Stone-penned humdinger but rather itemise the entire film’s swearing thus. Thank you, YouTube.

4.Withnail & I’ (1987)

Impossible to leave out Bruce Robinson’s sweary masterpiece, a killer in almost every line of dialogue. But every profanity in the film earns its keep, none more so than this panic-stricken classic.

3.This Is Spinal Tap’ (1983)

Apparently performed very much under the influence of the notorious Troggs Tapes, this beautifully conjured the annoyances of a duff recording session. I particularly like David St Hubbins’ (Michael McKean) moment of total exasperation, when words begin to fail him. Here’s the full uncut version:

2. ‘The Godfather Part 3’ (1990)

Pacino again, and why not? When Shouty Al gets going, there’s always a good chance he’s going to deliver some quality swearing. In this unsung sequel, he remains fairly buttoned up until basically going ballistic…

1. ‘Goodfellas’ (1990)

Tommy (Joe Pesci) meets ‘old friend’ Billy Batts (Frank Vincent) who is none too complimentary about the days when Tommy used to shine shoes…

BONUS! Let’s extend our look at great swear scenes into the 1990s. Because we can…

4. Bad Lieutenant (1992)

The Bad Lieutenant (Harvey Keitel) is driving his two young sons to school.

Boy 1: Aunt Wendy hogged the bathroom… All morning we couldn’t get in… So how are we supposed to be on time?
The BL: Hey, listen to me. I’m the boss, not Aunt Wendy. When it’s your turn to use the bathroom, tell Aunt Wendy to get the f*ck out. What are you, men or mice? If she’s hogging the bathroom, call me, I’ll throw her the f*ck out…

3. One False Move (1992)

Pluto (Michael Beach) and Ray (Billy Bob Thornton) drive along having a row about the money they’ve stolen, which Ray may have given to his girlfriend…

Pluto: Where’s my f*cking money, Ray?
Ray: I said I ain’t got any money. She took the f*cking money, all right? I’ve got 56 f*cking dollars, she took it, now let me go.
Pluto: You’re a pussy-whipped motherf*cker!
Ray: Don’t throw that sh*t at me, man. They’re your f*cking buddies back there that don’t have any money. That good friend of yours, Billy.
Pluto: I don’t know what the f*ck I’m doing with you, man! You’re a pussy-whipped, sorry-assed motherf*cker!

2. Glengarry Glen Ross (1992)

Blake (Alec Baldwin) turns up at a real estate office and makes his presence felt amongst the salesmen…

1. Fargo (1996)

Carl (Steve Buscemi) wants to leave a car park but the Attendant (Don William Skahill) isn’t making it easy…

You Terrible Cult: The Enduring Appeal Of ‘Withnail And I’

Which films do you revisit every couple of years?

I never tire of ‘Sideways’, ‘Diner’, ‘Duel’, ‘Career Girls’, ‘Tape’, ‘This Is Spinal Tap’, ‘The Long Goodbye’, ‘The Apartment’, ‘Eyes Wide Shut’, and a few others too.

But ‘Withnail’, released 30 years ago this week, should probably go right at the top of that list. I first saw it around 1988 when my dad rented the video.

I think he was a vague acquaintance of the movie’s writer/director Bruce Robinson at the time and had an inkling that it would float my boat.

How right he was. I was immediately smitten, drawn in by the superb swearing, anti-establishment mood, hilariously down-at-heel, self-important protagonists and low-key ending.

By the early ’90s, there was an outbreak of Withnails all over Britain – pasty, unshaven, rather insolent youths mooching around in leather overcoats and muttering about ‘wanting the finest wines available to humanity’…

Not a big hit on its original release, ‘Withnail’ has nonetheless become a classic cult movie, inspiring many devotees and even a notorious drinking game. But why has it endured? Here are seven reasons why it doesn’t seem to date as the years go by (swearing and spoiler alerts…).

7. No ‘Crap Bits’

Actor Ralph Brown – who plays Danny the Dealer – analysed ‘Withnail”s appeal thus. Almost every movie has a clunky change of pace/tone or a dodgy character beat – not this one, though Bruce Robinson has pinpointed an uncertain moment in the final reel when Danny embarks on his ‘They’re selling hippy wigs in Woolworths‘ speech.

6. Lack Of Plot

Let’s face it, nothing much happens in ‘Withnail’. There are no ‘life lessons’. But that’s its main strength. Two out-of-work actors try to go on holiday, one of their uncles comes to stay, falls in love with and attempts to seduce the other one, then they come home. It’s two fingers up to the screenwriting template taught in most film schools. But, framed another way, it’s actually the classic plot: put your hero(es) up a tree, throw rocks at him and get him down, though poor Withnail seems destined to stay up the tree forever…

5. Endlessly Quotable Dialogue

This is probably the key to the film’s longevity. ‘Fork it!’… ‘Monty, you terrible c**t!’… ‘We’ve gone on holiday by mistake’, ‘I demand to have some booze!’ ‘My thumbs have gone weird…’ etc. But as the years go by, it’s the throwaway lines that now make me chuckle the most: ‘Out-vibe it’, ‘Jesus, you’re covered in sh*t,’ ‘I’ve waited an aeon for assistance’, ‘Drugs banned in sport…’ ‘We’ll be found dead in here next spring…’ etc., etc…

4. Memorable Minor Characters

The film is chock-a-block with them. There’s Ralph Brown’s classic turn, Noel Johnson’s delightfully-plastered pub landlord, Llewellyn Rees’s tea-shop proprietor, Michael Elphick’s psychotic poacher and Anthony Strong’s manic traffic cop. All perform as if their lives depended on it. Late, great casting director Mary Selway must take a lot of credit.

3. Outstanding Lead Performances

Has there ever been a better movie drunk than Richard E Grant? (How about Ray Milland in ‘The Lost Weekend’? Ed.) It’s a superb breakout performance, especially coming from a famous teetotaler. In a far less showy role, Paul McGann does a fine job of tethering the movie (Kenneth Branagh and Michael Maloney were apparently sniffing around his part, so to speak), even if his accent flies around a bit. And of course Richard Griffiths as Uncle Monty is a delight.

2. Lack Of A Remake/Sequel

Please, please, please may it stay this way. Hollywood: stay away from ‘Withnail’. ‘Edgy’ young Brit writer/directors: leave well alone. You can just imagine the horror of a remake – lots of touchy-feely moments about ‘friendship’, and Withnail going on a ‘journey’… Just NO.

1. Good Grammar

It’s not called ‘Withnail And Me’… (Enough reasons already… – Ed.)

From Diva To De Palma: Seven Soundtrack Moments


Ralph Brown as Danny in ‘Withnail & I’

When it comes to the marriage of sound and vision, there’s a particular kind of ’80s cliché probably originating from the work of directors like Ridley/Tony Scott, Adrian Lyne, Hugh Hudson and Alan Parker (interestingly, all Brits who ended up in Hollywood).

It’s basically a slick, beautifully-shot montage of images usually accompanied by vaguely ‘New Age’ kind of music which probably features some Satie-esque piano, possibly some strings (synthesized or real) and/or a bit of acoustic guitar or sax.

Well, I’m here to tell you that this combo is pure comfort food for me in these troubled times. It must be another of those ‘blokes of a certain age’ things. And it turns out that some of those directors also produced some of my favourite movie soundtrack moments of the ’80s:

7. Diva (1981)

Composer Vladimir Cosma channels Erik Satie, Peter Gabriel and Tangerine Dream to create a beguiling mix of solo piano, bleak new-wave rock and classic minimalism. I don’t ‘do’ opera but the two versions of Catalani’s ‘La Wally’ which bookend this superb album get me every time.

6. Angel Heart (1987)

A bleak synth swells in the distance, De Niro (?) whispers ‘Johnny… Johnny…’ and we’re off. Courtney Pine blows impressively over Trevor Jones’ ambient backing and the rest of the album features some excellent crooner tunes and R’n’B too.

5. Blow Out (1981)

Melody-maestro Pino Donaggio pulls out all the stops for this rather beautiful theme which accompanies director Brian De Palma’s most ’emotional’ movie slaying…

4. Betty Blue (1986)

Gabriel Yared’s haunting soundtrack for this famously-overrated art-house melodrama gives me an instant nostalgia rush. Very influential too, particularly on the next choice.

3. Withnail & I (1987)

David Dundas and Rick Wentworth’s music perfectly evokes some of the film’s themes darker themes, though the blues guitar licks were perhaps best left out of the final mix.

2. 9 1/2 Weeks (1986)

The bizarre, chameleon-like career of pianist/composer Jack Nitzsche is one for another time, but his ‘love theme’ from Adrian Lyne’s guilty pleasure is sentimental, hokey and clichéd, and gets me every time. There are other crackers by Jean-Michel Jarre, Brian Eno and The Eurythmics on the quite-hard-to-find soundtrack album.

1. Mrs Soffel (1984)

A confession – I’ve never seen this movie. And I’m really not sure I ever will. But Mark Isham’s majestic theme never fails to beguile, originally heard on a mid-’80s Windham Hill Records taster cassette.